During the brouhaha surrounding the “Mufti speech” of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I tweeted a photograph. It purported to show the Mufti Amin al-Husseini seated alongside David and Paula Ben-Gurion. I’d first seen the photograph during a lecture (in Hebrew) on Ben-Gurion delivered by Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s most distinguished historians, at Shalem College in February 2014—a lecture I myself chaired. When the photograph flashed on the screen above the podium, a gasp of recognition went through the audience: The Mufti with Ben-Gurion! Yes, said Shapira, that’s who it is.
Later, Shapira selected the photograph for inclusion in her (wonderful) new biography of Ben-Gurion, both in English and Hebrew. The Hebrew caption surmised that it was taken in the mid-1930s, apparently at an event under the auspices of the British High Commissioner. She credited the photo to the Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, which apparently didn’t preserve any identifying information. Shapira didn’t make anything of the encounter—the caption noted that Ben-Gurion and the Mufti never had a meeting—but the image of the two of them seated side by side hinted at one of those alleged “missed opportunities” that litter the historiography of Israel.
So when the “Mufti speech” made waves, I tweeted the photo, giving Shapira credit for discovering it.
This became the most retweeted and favorited tweet I’d ever posted. Many of the retweets added sarcastic commentary, some of it amusing, some less so. But one set of Twitter responses troubled me, from a Palestinian journalist, Ibrahim Husseini:
Looking closer at the photograph, I could see the problem. Setting aside the improbability that the Mufti would place himself in this position, he didn’t look quite like himself. Yes, the iconic headgear was there, but that wasn’t at all exclusive to the Mufti. Yes, the facial hair looked approximately right, but that was also standard grooming. (Actually, the Mufti did have white tufts on the chin of his beard, but this could have been lost in a photograph, depending on the lighting.) It was the eyes, or more specifically, the bags around them, and the slightly sunken cheek, that seemed anomalous. The Mufti had a smooth and full face. Here he is after testifying to the Peel Commission in January 1937.
Was this the same man as the one in Anita Shapira’s photograph? It started to look doubtful. So I wrote to Shapira, who is a friend of long standing. She replied by thanking me, and told me that after publication of her book, a retired employee of the Israel State Archives told her that this wasn’t the Mufti. “Pity,” she added.
Since I played a supporting role in disseminating this photograph, I felt more than the usual obligation of a historian to set the record straight. If not the Mufti, who was this man, who was of sufficient stature to warrant a place next to David Ben-Gurion? So I started posting queries on Twitter and the Facebook pages of Israeli and Palestinian archives and research centers. I got a lot of agreement that it wasn’t the Mufti, but didn’t get any leads. I even heard from someone who had known the Mufti. “Perhaps acceptable for a Hollywood rendition,” he wrote, but definitely not the Mufti. Yet he had no suggestions as to who it might be. An archive director in Israel sent my query to all his peers. No answer.
The person most likely to have known the answer died on November 1 of last year. He was Shabtai Teveth, author of a (never completed) multi-volume biography of B-G. He’d actually been silent for much longer, having suffered a debilitating stroke twelve years before his death. Teveth had been my good friend, and I’d published an appreciation of him earlier this year. I knew that, were he alive and well, his eyes would have twinkled at the question, and he would have provided an on-the-spot answer, because he loved detail, and no detail of Ben-Gurion’s life was too small.
I began to wonder whether there might be some clue in Teveth’s voluminous writings. His biography of B-G had nothing. I had slightly higher hopes from his 400-page book on Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs, which appeared in Hebrew in 1985 and also in an abbreviated English translation (which I helped him prepare). Alas, nothing there, and no photographs in either the Hebrew or the English editions.
Stymied, I began to run Google searches of Teveth with improbable search terms—long shots, because I was quite sure I’d consulted everything Teveth had written on Ben-Gurion and the Arabs. During one of these desultory searches, I stumbled across the pdf of a Hebrew article by Teveth entitled “Ben-Gurion and the Arab Question,” which, to my amazement, I’d never seen. It appeared in the journal Cathedra in March 1987. I couldn’t imagine why Teveth wrote it, since he’d already published a whole book on the subject. As I scrolled down through the piece, I saw a few images—Cathedra illustrates its articles. Then suddenly, close to the end, I came upon this:
Here was the image, published for the first time not by Shapira but by Teveth, more than twenty-five years ago! And apparently, unlike Shapira, he had the “metadata” for the photograph. His caption reads: “Ben-Gurion alongside Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi, president of the Supreme Muslim Appeals Court, before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, 1946.” It was as though I’d asked Teveth my question, and he’d found a way to lead me to the answer.
Sheikh Tawfiq al-Taybi wasn’t comparable to Ben-Gurion in any way. He’d served as a qadi, or religious judge, from 1920, working his way up through the Islamic courts around the country before reaching Jerusalem. In 1940, he became president of the appeals court; he fled for Lebanon in 1948. As far as I can tell from the records of the Anglo-American Committee, he didn’t actually testify. (The testimony of three other “Moslem Religious Dignitaries” is recorded.) And the text of Teveth’s article said nothing about him. It turns out there isn’t much of a reason to include this photograph in any biography of Ben-Gurion. Lots of other interesting photographs could fill that prime real estate.
If this story is worth telling at such length, it’s to serve as a reminder to historians (especially me) that first instincts can mislead, and that in history, as in investing, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But above all, it’s an encouraging story of how historians never go silent, even when they’re gone. You just have to ask them.